icholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of, most recently, The End of North Korea.
National Review: Last week North Korea agreed to a summit with South Korea, scheduled for June. Why?
Nicholas Eberstadt: Having appreciated the semiotics of the Clinton administration for the past eight years, you will understand the difference between "agreeing" to a summit and "having" a summit.
Agreeing to the summit is a transaction for which there is something for both Pyongyang and Seoul. For Pyongyang, the attraction to agreeing to a summit was a big fat aid packet from South Korea on the one hand. Another positive benefit is keeping North Korea off of the radar screen in South Korean and American electoral politics this year. In an election year, if North Korea becomes a political issue in South Korea or the United States, political leaders will be impelled to take a harder line against the DPRK. The more public scrutiny there is about what North Korea is about, the more political leaders will move towards a harder line towards DPRK. So, for both of those reasons, promising to have a summit serves North Korea's interest.
Of course, the promise to have a summit serves the South Korean government's interests as well. In a general sense, it conformed with Kim Dae Jung's vision of how a Sunshine Policy should work. In a more specific sense, announcing this hours before the national assembly election allowed the South Korean ruling party to achieve what we would call an "October Surprise." So, there was something in announcing this for both sides.
It's not clear to me that there is something in it for both sides to actually go through with the meetings in June. There's clearly something in it for the South Korean side because having a meeting in Pyongyang, a summit, is furthering the path to reconciliation and peaceful co-existence and a better understanding and reducing of tensions on the peninsula. All of that is great from a South Korean standpoint. It's not clear to me that it's so great from the North Korean standpoint. Apart from all the particulars of negotiating specific agenda items: 1) Kim Dae Jung is a highly presentable world figure. He is a confidant, imposing, sometimes electrifying, figure. I don't think that we can say exactly the same of Kim Jong-il. He is a twisted, elusive, hothouse plant in the hothouse that is the North Korean system. Kim Jong-il was for a long time a film director, but I don't think it is conceivable to imagine any choreographed script for a meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas in which the leader of North Korea comes off favorably.
2) The general forensics of the meeting are not auspicious for the DPRK. Kim Jong-il is a jail keeper for a starving state. Kim Dae Jung is the Korean peninsula's most renowned human-rights activist, most renowned prisoner of conscience and probably a leading contender for the Nobel Peace Prize. Those are not the most favorable forensics from the North Korean side for a meeting.
3) Even if it weren't Kim Dae Jung and his international reputation and so forth, having any president of South Korea come to the North on a mission of peace and reconciliation is fundamentally subversive to the enemy-image logic that justifies this mobilized, highly militarized police state. I don't quite understand what is in it for North Korea to go through and have this summit meeting with the South. And that's not to say that I may hugely misunderstand this and it is somehow in their interest . . . maybe.
It's also not to say that the summit won't happen because sometimes governments miscalculate their own interests, sometimes leaders miscalculate their state interests. The walking, talking instantiation of that proposition is Mikhail Gorbachev, who, decision after decision, blundered away the existence of the Soviet Union. God bless him he did nothing but miscalculate the interest of his state and, of course, now he doesn't have a state. The point is that North Korean leadership may indeed move ahead with this summit, may even go through with it, but I think that would be a big miscalculation of their interests, as I understand those interests.
NR: If they were to go through with it, what should South Korea be trying to get out of it?
Eberstadt: The South Korean government has said they're going to talk about separated families, economic cooperation, and confidence-building measures on the peninsula. Part of President Kim Dae Jong's approach to the North is to say that the two sides should work on the things that are easiest to work on first, defer the more contentious issues until later. If it comes off, the agenda items will be the ones that are least difficult for the two sides, which is to say least difficult for North Korea, to engage in. One of the things that should be how to end the hunger crisis in the North. But that may be an issue that would be rather difficult for the two sides to come to an agreement on since it is the North Korean system that has precipitated this hunger crisis.
There is this other nagging question. We have this human-rights president in South Korea. How to deal with human rights? This would be very difficult to get on the agenda, but it certainly has to do with how the two sides get along. How does one deal with North Korean refugees? What does one do about the question of the rights of North Korean refugees? Under the South Korean constitution, anyone who lives south of the Ulan River qualifies as an ROK citizen. When people who qualify as ROK citizens escape into China in a desperate search for food, what does one do about that? The South Korean government has been remarkably hesitant about rescuing those people so far. In contrast, South Korea's approach to its diaspora there and Israel's approach to its Diaspora there's a big contrast. That's something that the South Korean government should be thinking about, but it's probably not something that goes immediately on the summit agenda.
NR: The track record for North Korea agreeing to summits isn't very promising--I'm thinking of the last agreement they made a year ago in January. They dramatically backed out of it by making wild accusations about South Korea and the United States. Do you expect that it could be that they are not miscalculating, that this is a strategic plan to flex muscle?
Eberstadt: If the North Korean side wants to call off the summit, it will be able to do so by manufacturing an incident, a "summit-breaking" incident. North Korea does not have any problems creating crises. They're quite good at that when it suits their purpose.
NR: How wrongheaded has the Clinton policy been toward the Koreas and what should U.S. policy be at this point?
Eberstadt: I would say there hasn't been a Clinton policy towards North Korea. I would say there have been many Clinton policies towards North Korea. I can count at least four, which have in seriatim replaced one another. Initially, Clinton's policy towards the DPRK and the question of nuclear proliferation and the like was very much the continuation of post-war American foreign security policy. Originally, he said he would settle for nothing less than DPRK compliance with its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. For the first year of his term, Clinton's talk on the North Korean question was hard to distinguish from George Bush's or Ronald Reagan's or democratic predecessors' because there had been bipartisan continuity towards North Korea since the end of the Korean War, for obvious reasons. But, by the time we got around to Clinton's writing his excellency Kim Jong-il a letter promising that he would do everything in his power to guarantee the financing of light-water reactors for the North, we were into a very, very different mode of any post-war presidency. And, what we have right now is a closely coordinated approach which Japan, South Korea, and the United States are pursuing something which we call the Perry Process. Both the Perry Process and the Sunshine Policy are hoping to strike a grand bargain with North Korea in which North Korea agrees to be a normal government in return for international guarantees for its security, better diplomatic relations with the United States, and big aid payments from abroad. It gives up its weapons of mass destruction program for that. It stops threatening the south and it becomes a member of the international community.
The only problem with this policy of engagement is that it is not engaging the actual, real existing DPRK state. It's engaging an imaginary variation of it in which North Korea's long pattern of behavior is not considered, respectfully considered. It's seen as an epiphenomenon. The idea that there might be an internal logic to North Korean behavior over the last 50 years is not so seriously assessed.
A rather romantic vision of what actually occurred in the Cold War and how the Cold War came to an end in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is also entertained in this process. By one interpretation, the Cold War came to an end in Eastern Europe because we had a glorious idiot in Moscow, Mikhail Gorbachev, who inadvertently brought to an end his entire system. North Korean leadership has paid a lot of attention to what transpired in the final crisis of Soviet and Eastern European socialism. And everything they have pronounced through their media would suggest that they are determined not to repeat those mistakes, not to head down the path of reform and economic opening as Western policy so dearly hopes, not to infect their society with the bacillus of rotten bourgeois culture, to keep all of that stuff out and to support their failing system through military extortion. That's why they have a military first policy. The North Korean government has said that its policy now is to build to a rich and prosperous state and they've spelled out that their nation can be rich only when the barrel of the gun is strong. Well, what does that mean, please? What that means is military shakedown is the approach. The idea that the North Korean government would bargain away what it views as its insurance policy for survival is very hard to imagine, but that's what the current Western approach is predicated upon.
NR: Should Bush make this an election issue?
Eberstadt: Both candidates should address this as an election question because the Korean peninsula, as Admiral Blair and many other American military personnel have indicated, is the place in the world where the United States is most likely to get into a conflict with the least notice in advance. So, of course, it's a security concern. Moreover, there's a real possibility on current trajectory that the danger will be increasing on the Korean peninsula. I think that it is only responsible for both candidates to explain what their program with dealing with North Korea, dealing with the on-going Korean crisis should be.
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